Near the Johnson County Courthouse, in a part of town that still harbors bits of the old Olathe, Sue Caines dashes around tables with breakfast plates of eggs and home fries at the Downtown Diner she co-owns.
When she and husband Rich opened the place in 2011, they decorated the dining room with historic photos of the once-tiny town. Olathe felt rather rural, surrounded by gravel roads, just a couple generations ago.
“We wanted to show our customers what old Olathe looked like,” Sue Caines said.
In some ways, she represents new Olathe.
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Born Min Yi in Guangzhou, China, she immigrated to Belize and later to America after meeting her husband, a Navy man. In 2005, they settled in Olathe.
“We love living here,” she said.
Inside what many call the new Olathe — a growing and increasingly multicultural city — a whiter old Olathe still lingers.
The suburban boom town made up of both old and new drew international attention last month when a bar shooting killed one immigrant and wounded another, along with a third man who tried to stop the gunman.
Olathe fits a pattern defining thousands of American suburbs. Once havens of white flight, where families fled in search of wide lawns and away from desegregated schools, urban outskirts now find more and more immigrants and racial minorities moving in — and mixing in, when these communities succeed.
It can mean growing pains at times, where early arrivals miss their smaller, more intimate and, to be sure, more homogenous communities.
“Pockets here and there” grumble about the city’s changing demographics, said Olathe Police Sgt. Logan Bonney, “but overall, that’s pretty rare.”
Some of the Downtown Diner regulars are longtime residents. On a recent morning, the clientele was all white. A few recalled with fondness the old Olathe, where nobody was a stranger.
“I liked it better when we had around 6,000 people” instead of the 135,000 presently residing there, said customer Marcia Hyer, who arrived as a high schooler in the 1950s. “But what can you do? It’s happening everywhere.”
Change, that is.
Olathe lawyer Zach Thomas, the son of Indian immigrants, can speak to change. As an elementary school student in Olathe many years ago, he was the only Indian-American kid in his grade. When his family moved there in the 1980s, he reckons, barely two dozen Indian families lived in Johnson County.
He’s always felt at home, welcomed, woven into the community fabric. The shooting at Austins Bar & Grill on Feb. 22, allegedly by someone questioning the right of two men to be in the country, sparked a memory from a few years ago when he was at a bar across from the courthouse with friends. He got in a conversation with a stranger who’d had too much to drink. At one point the man blew up, telling Thomas, What the (expletive) do you know, you’re an Indian.
That night, like the tragic night at Austins, everyone in the bar sided with the brown-skinned guy, Thomas said. The incident nearly faded from recollection because it didn’t fit the experience he’s known in southern Johnson County over the years.
“It was so rare and so mind-blowing that I almost forgot about it,” Thomas said. “One bad white person does not skew the rest of the community.”
Shift in the ’burbs
America’s metropolitan areas continue to grow at the fringes. That’s particularly true in Kansas City, and even more so in Johnson County. The interstate highway system makes commuting practical, and there are virtually no geographical barriers — like Denver’s Rockies, San Francisco’s Pacific, Seattle’s Puget Sound — cramping development.
As the country becomes more ethnically diverse, analysts of suburban growth say, it’s little surprise that the edges of cities now look more like their melting pot middles.
“Some of the most diverse places in the country today are the suburbs,” said Joel Kotkin, author of “The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us,” which argues that families will always gravitate to subdivisions despite urban planners’ love of density. “City centers are generally populated by either the really poor, the really rich or the hipsters.”
He laments the fading character of urban ethnic neighborhoods, “the tapestries” of Italian, Czech or African-American enclaves with fairly defined borders.
But Kotkin said the suburban mixing of demographic groups — young couples buying homes next to retirees, an Ethiopian family sharing a fence line with a white family — begins to erode at the balkanization that marks so many cities.
“Most young people who move into suburban Kansas say, ‘Hey, it’s great. There’s a nice Chinese joint around the corner,’ ” he said. “More people actually want diversity.”
Demographers note that 20th-century immigrants went to cities in pursuit of manufacturing jobs and heavy industry, and gravitated toward enclaves segregated by race and countries of origin. In the 21st century, jobs turn more on a worker’s know-how. Urban factories are replaced by suburban office parks.
Because those outlying areas are still taking shape, one subdivision after the next, old racial and ethnic settlement patterns matter much less, said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. The result, she said, mixes newcomers with old timers.
“As immigrants became more prosperous, they moved up and they moved out,” the demographer said. “People settle in suburban areas because they’re closer to their jobs, because of their preference in housing and transportation — the same things that motivate other people to choose those places.”
The urbanization of suburbia, argued a Brookings Institution demographer, means “the historically sharp racial divisions between cities and suburbs in metropolitan America are becoming more blurred than ever.”
In Olathe, few people complain openly about the changes that have remade the city in the last quarter-century. That’s partly, say many, because any resistance to the new Olathe is so rare.
After all, the new demographics represent ongoing prosperity. Srinivas Kuchibhotla, the Indian immigrant killed at Austins, was an engineer at Garmin and part of a wave of educated foreigners turbocharging the local economy.
Olathe’s elected leader summed up the lessons in his State of the City speech Friday.
The tragedy, said Mayor Michael Copeland, “showed that our strength is our different origins, melded into this compassionate, inclusive and united community. It showed how we come together by the thousands to offer prayers, support and love.
“We mourn together. We grieve together. And most of all, we remain united. No act of evil will divide us. We will never allow hatred and bigotry to stand, and we remain one Olathe.”
That one Olathe has seen more than a doubling of its population since 1990. In that time, the city also added nearly 30,000 jobs — a gain of 123 percent, more than double the overall employment growth for Johnson County.
Nearly 45 percent of Olathe’s adults hold college degrees, about a third better than the national average. Household earnings growth in the last decade grew at a clip about a third better than the national average.
A large part of that growth has come from immigrants and racial minorities. Between 2000 and 2010, the share of nonwhite residents climbed from roughly 11 percent to 17 percent. Hispanic representation jumped from 5.4 percent to 10.4 percent.
Highly trained folks today come from around the world to the area’s high-tech sectors and good-paying jobs at Garmin, Cerner, Honeywell and Sprint. In many cases, scores of smaller outfits have been created by people who left those corporate workplaces to start their own businesses.
Immigrants from India — a heavy source of technological talent for Garmin — are numerous enough to sustain a market for Hindi movies. Bollywood showings are offered daily at the AMC Studio 28 on South Strang Line Road.
Dealing with diversity
The immigrants talk about the new Olathe as a largely welcoming place. The natives say they take pride in how well they think the city has warmed to its changing demographics. Some say its church-focused population makes a difference. Others say it’s just good business to make productive workers feel at home.
They see the shooting, with its apparent ugly nativist overtones, as more shocking than revelatory of some simmering racial tension.
At the Islamic Center of Kansas, an Olathe mosque not far from Austins, a sign in the lobby was left by a neighbor after a crazed man shot six people to death in Quebec in January:
Kansas City cares about our Muslim neighbors!
That echoes what those who attend the mosque have experienced, said Kamran Qadir. When Muslims are blamed for terrorism in other parts of the country or targeted by political rhetoric, he said, “the questions do come up: Are we safe?”
The answer in Olathe, he said, is yes. And welcomed.
“It’s been very nice to see the support,” said Qadir, the president of the center.
Debashis Haldar was born in India, came to Kansas in 1998 and found people almost universally welcoming to immigrants like him. His white neighbors have been friends. His white co-workers, too. Strangers on the street or at a restaurant: regularly cheery.
Today, he still finds Johnson County widely friendly to him — now a U.S. citizen — even if the mood has seemed to shift in the last few years as the country has begun to quarrel with itself over immigration and immigrants.
Now, he said, he feels in subtle ways that his brown skin matters more, although still rarely, than it once did in random interactions. He runs his own business, and when talks with one prospective employee went sour, the man began cussing at him over text messages, suggesting the immigrant “go home” to India.
“This sort of thing is really, really rare,” Haldar said. “But a few years ago, I didn’t see it at all.”
In the Olathe Public Schools, more than one in 10 children is still learning to speak fluent English. The pupil mix includes 84 languages.
The white families who still made up 83 percent of the population in the 2010 U.S. Census, down from more than 90 percent a decade before, say they almost never hear complaints about the browning of their city.
How can that be, when racial and ethnic tension has been such a running theme in American, even world, history?
“What I see from the pulpit and what I see around town — I make a point to go to different coffee shops around the city — is that people welcome these newcomers,” said the Rev. Derek Varney, pastor at First Baptist Church, across from Austins on busy 151st Street. “Faith has a lot to do with it.”
“Absolutely,” said City Council member Wes McCoy. “It comes back to the faith community.”
“We just see people and opportunity, and potential,” said John Bacon, another council member.
Still, this exurb can at times channel the nation’s ongoing struggle to mix black, white and brown, native and newcomer.
At the Center of Grace, an outreach campus of Olathe’s Grace United Methodist Church, pastor Sylvia Romero said she’s recently been thinking twice about “speaking Spanish in public. Should I?”
A Colombian immigrant turned U.S. citizen, Romero has been a part of Olathe since 1993, when the Hispanic presence was not very noticeable. Today, several Latino-run businesses operate along Old 56 Highway and Parker Street.
Other signs of concern lie in the fact that some local institutions asked to stay out of this article. Garmin did not respond to The Star’s inquiries. In the wake of the Austins shooting, the Olathe Public Schools and Johnson County Community College, both generally lauded for helping create a more inclusive community, did not wish to play a role in a story focused on new Olathe’s demographic makeup.
But others relished the chance to bring Olathe’s evolving story to light.
“This city, and especially Mayor Copeland, has continually been reaching out to all cultures,” said Jim Terrones, who helps lead Olathe’s Latino Coalition.
A few years back, its members began meeting monthly with City Hall representatives to bridge gaps between the needs of what he called an “exploding” Hispanic population and public services tailored in the past to a stable, affluent community.
“The coalition is an ongoing effort to build trust,” said Terrones. “Unfortunately, what’s happened in the last few months” — including a racially charged election — “has gotten some people a bit afraid. But that shouldn’t stop us.”
Police officers visit schools to read with students learning English. The Olathe Police Department also hosts annual cookouts at an apartment complex populated mostly by Latino tenants.
A remade suburb
Bob Courtney, president of the Olathe Historical Society, noted that in 1980 the Olathe district had one high school and about 5,000 total students. This year, 30,000. A fifth high school, Olathe West, will open this fall.
“We’re not fully developed yet,” he said, with stretches of available land to the west.
And yet Courtney acknowledged a lingering affection in parts of town for old Olathe, evidenced by the popularity of the city’s annual celebration — Old Settlers Day.
Back at the Downtown Diner, customer Brent Ramirez, a resident since 1985, said he was thankful his kids made friends at school with Laotian, Somali, Latino, Chinese and Indian children.
“It’s a good thing, definitely,” he said.
Customer Joyce Ford, who has lived in and around Olathe for nearly 50 years, said the growth “has been so fast, it’s like boom. ... But I’ve never heard people say they don’t like it.
As do communities.
Today, Ford said, “there are so many neighbors you don’t know any more. ... We’ve expanded so much.”
Ford, who owns Master Maintenance Services, recalled a time when shopkeepers and residents all over town asked daily how things were going for her and husband Bob.
Bob died five years ago. She still runs into old friends who haven’t heard.